10 Holiday Entertaining Rookie Mistakes

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I’m by no means a pro, or a perfect 50s housewife as shown above. That’s a joke; look at the burnt cookies. The above photo was the outcome of saying yes to a makeup artist friend who needed more photos in her portfolio. I have never identified with Martha Stewart either. But I have cooked and planned a holiday dinner party for 16 people for roughly 13 years. I’ve made all the mistakes and had my Mom on speed dial for the first seven years. I hope the following mistakes are ones you can avoid and it will help you enjoy your holiday party a bit more. Cheers!

1) You’re in the kitchen all night

This is a big bummer for you and the guests. You want to see them for god’s sake. You invited them! They want to catch up with you. Maybe they’ll come in and hang out in the kitchen while you’re elbow deep in stuffing, but that’s not relaxing for you and you can’t give them your full attention. It’s actually more stressful for you and it slows down the cooking. Here’s how you can avoid this. Start your preparations two days ahead. I know. It sounds like that will suck. It’s worth it though. Do your shopping three days in advance if can swing it. If not, squeeze it in two mornings before the party. Right after you put the groceries away, set the table. I know that might sound unnecessary, but what I’ve learned is that these little tasks add up and all of sudden you’re scrambling with napkins five minutes before people arrive. This gives you the time to be creative with your table decor and find out if you are missing anything as well. Then, on to cooking. Cook as many dishes as you can in advance. For the holidays there are a lot casseroles and all of those can be pre-made and refrigerated (mashed potatoes included). If you have time for more, go ahead and prep the other dishes. Do all the chopping and get it out of the way.

2) Your mashed potatoes look like gel

This happens when you are doing too many things at once and accidentally overcook the potatoes. When you started mashing or whipping these guys, they get gelatinous. Ick. This can also be caused by trying to puree them. Don’t use an immersion blender on them. Just hand mash. Keep your eye on them while they’re cooking and do them the day before so your attention is not split between them and the turkey.

3) A dry turkey

Oh the bird! I’m vegetarian and I still wrestle, probe, and caress a turkey every year. The turkey is kind of an art, so it may take a couple years, or you may get lucky. The key is watch that bird’s temperature and not rely solely on an approximated cook time length. Every bird is very different. One 20 pound turkey is different from the next 20 pounder. Take it out of the oven when it’s 160 degrees in the breast. It will come up to 170 degrees while you’re letting it rest, covered with foil for 30 minutes. That’s perfect. It won’t by dry. As for prep, I always slather the skin in butter and cook it uncovered until it’s brown, then cover it in foil so the skin doesn’t burn. Browning the skin will hold the juice in.

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4)Not enough booze

It’s a buzz kill and a sign that your party is over if you run out of alcohol, so don’t let it happen. Don’t worry about buying too much. Whatever isn’t used will surely be imbibed at a later date.

5) Wild kids

Have a couple crafts, or a bunch of toys in a separate room, away from the cocktail area if you can. If it is a family party, then of course they will run in and out, but you don’t need them jumping all around you while you are catching up with friends over cocktails. Some of your guests may not have kids and may not appreciate wild kids doing circles around their legs.

6) A dead table

Go ahead and make place cards, then think carefully about where you place your guests. You may never have done this and it may feel awkward to you at the start, but I swear by this. People are what make or break a party. Good food and ambiance are just dressing. Your guests are the main ingredients, so take care of them. Seat two people who have something in common next to each other, but don’t put all the extroverts on one end of the table and all the introverts on the other end. That is an unbalanced table and one end will be very quiet. Spread the sexes and the introverts throughout the table and you’ll have a great party.

7) You never eat

If you follow the tips in #1, you should be able to avoid this. Even if you have all the work and cooking done though, you may just be a person who is so engaged in their guests and the conversation that you end up just picking at your dinner. Force yourself to eat a normal portion. You need the food  to one, soak up the alcohol, and two, get the energy to make it through the party and clean up.

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8) Eating too late

The timing of dinner is largely dependent on the main course, a bird perhaps. So it may have to be flexible. But don’t start cocktail hour so early that everyone is wasted by dinner time, or let the food dry out in the oven while you socialize. Take charge of the schedule and don’t feel bad to move everyone to the dining room table even if they are having what looks to be a marvelous time. Don’t worry about interrupting their conversations and sit around waiting twenty minutes for the perfect time. No, the perfect time is when the food is ready and hot. Another way to work with the variable timing of reheating casseroles and settling turkeys is to pre-plate a salad and have everyone start on that. This gets the dinner process started and allows you to bring the food out of the oven piping hot. You don’t want the food sitting out getting cold while people are eating salad.

9) Bad lighting

Bad lighting= bad mood. Never use just overhead lights alone. If you have to use them, dim them if you can and turn on lamps. Light tons of candles. Good lighting makes people feel more relaxed and more festive. It makes your home look better and you look better. You don’t want your guests feeling like they’re under a spotlight or at a Denny’s. Another note on ambiance, if you can spring for them, fresh flowers always dress up your party and make it beautiful.

10) No music

Dead air feels weird at a party. There are bound to be lulls in conversation and when there is, people should hear music. Not blaring music, but music at a moderate level. Dead air makes them feel like they’re back in the office, in a meeting. If the crowd is appropriate and they’re ready for it, you can liven up the party easily by turning the volume up a bit. Don’t make a drastic jump because it will jolt them, but gradually turning it up a bit will trick them into a different state.

Good luck and happy party planning!

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5 Tricks To Make Your House Look Cleaner Than It Really Is

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Or 5 ways to make your house clean enough to have people over (i.e. Holiday party) without doing a deep clean or hiring a cleaning service.

I don’t have a cleaning service and I definitely don’t have an uninterrupted chunk of time to clean my house all at once. I have a piecemeal approach and only do it when I feel inspired to. There is no set day that I clean, nor do I have a cleaning schedule, or heaven forbid, a chart to check off. I shut down when I see a checklist. My methodology is more artistic. Yeah, let’s call it that. But it’s also very important that my house looks clean, so I guess you could say I’m an expert in just getting by and creating the illusion of clean sometimes. So here are my tips and tricks on how to make your house look much cleaner than it really is in a short amount of time. An impromptu cocktail party and you have two hours to food prep, clean, and get dressed? Planning a holiday party or dinner party and your kids don’t allow you the time for a deep clean? Here’s your answer. Disclaimer: This method does involve some cleaning. I haven’t yet found a way to invoke the power of the scrubbing fairies.

1) De-Clutter

Ideally you keep your place de-cluttered all the time so you don’t have to face a huge mess when it comes time to get ready for people coming over. The way I do it is to always put stuff back in its place. I’m never moving from one part of the house to the other with empty hands. There’s always something I’m brining back to its place. It can seem daunting to some, but it’s just a habit to start. You’re walking to the kids’ room anyway, might as well grab those books that kids brought into kitchen and put them back. Don’t let piles of junk mail accumulate all over your house. If you live in a small place, invest in a few under the bed containers and throw all the toys in there.

2) Bathroom Mirrors and Toilet

Congealed toothpaste, floss projectile, water ┬áspots, and finger prints collect within a day after cleaning your bathroom mirrors. So you’ve got to do it before you have people over even if you did it two days ago. If you don’t, your guests may not be able to articulate what exactly looks dirty, but they’ll walk out of your bathroom with an icky feeling. Likewise with the toilet. Obviously. A stray hair or hardened urine is not acceptable to guests. A quick spray and wipe should do it for both the mirrors and toilet. If these two spots are clean, it will trick people into thinking the whole bathroom is clean.

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3) Kitchen sink

Even if your sink isn’t technically dirty, or gunked up with old food, it still needs to be spruced up. The water spots that have accumulated over a few days are enough to make it just look messy and nasty. Get some Barkeeper’s Friend or Bon Ami (if you have a stainless steel sink) and give it a scrub. This is a three minutes worth investing. It will come looking like new and again, hypnotize people into thinking your house is impeccable.

4)Empty All Your Trash Bins

This is the easiest of all the tasks and takes the least amount of time. Nobody wants to smell your old onion peels, gaze at your snotty tissues, or wonder what is wrapped up so tightly in that wad of toilet paper. Just get it out of there, please. Empty trash cans remind me of nice hotels and new beginnings, two things that will make any guest feel good.

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5) Kill Dust Bunnies

Grab a kleenex and do a quick grab of any dust bunnies hiding in corners, especially in bathrooms where guests will be naturally looking down while they sit on your throne. These little cuties are a big contributor to an ick factor that you don’t want your guests to get. You can do this on your final sweep of the home while checking for any stray socks, My Little Ponies, empty glasses, or embarrassing photos.

Done. You’re ready to pop a cork and pull out the hummus. If you’re fast, you can do the above in 20 minutes.

Whether you get half this list done or all of it, you still need to dim your lights and light a bunch of candles. Any dust bunnies you’ve missed will be rendered invisible (except in a bright bathroom, so make sure to get those) and you will have created a relaxing ambiance. Bright overhead lights are my pet peeve, but that’s another story I’ll address later.

Note: This is all assuming you have a decent baseline level of “tolerably clean” at your house. If we’re starting with a sink full of dishes, counters covered in hardened jelly, black mold around every faucet, and two months of laundry piled on all the horizontal surfaces of your home, you’ve got a bigger project on your hands, dear.